Underhill Rose - 'Live' - ScrollerWhy do a live album? Well when you’re as good live as Eleanor Underhill, Molly Rose and Salley Williamson, the prospect of being recorded live holds no terrors. They can even play without any amplification if they have to. “Live”, recorded in Asheville, North Carolina, over two nights was an attempt to let a wider audience hear the songs in their live incarnations: three voices and four instruments (including Eleanor’s harmonica). And it’s a highly successful attempt; the quality of the performances is superb and with fifteen songs, no-one can complain about quantity.
The mix of songs is fairly representative of the live experience, featuring songs spanning their studio albums and a couple of interesting covers, “These Boots are Made for Walking” featuring Salley Williamson’s vocal and upright bass, and a deft stripping-down of the eighties classic “Bette Davis Eyes” that shows exactly how powerful the song is without the synthesised eighties percussion.
Throughout the album, the harmonies are perfect and the recording captures the warmth and intimacy that’s a huge part of any Underhill Rose show, highlighted in the celebration of community and friendship, “They Got My Back”. There’s no inconsistency; the performance is perfect throughout. If I had to pick standouts, I would go for the sultry “Whispering Pines Motel” or the combination of photographic imagery and reminiscence of the lovely “In Color”. If you haven’t seen Eleanor, Molly and Salley live yet, this is the next best thing. If you have seen them, it will bring those memories back.
Now let’s wait for Tony Visconti to tell us it was eighty percent overdubbed.
“Live” is released on Friday June 30.

Temp-5944The band’s name is HVMM (pronounced ‘hum’, you know like Chvrches) and they were playing Camden Rocks Presents at Proud Camden. An early evening slot on the hottest weekend of the year didn’t look too promising, but this band were determined to go on and kill it. HVMM is Sam Jenkins (drums), Andy Teece (vocals), Ebony Clay (guitar) and Jack Timmis (bass) and they’re based in Worcester, which might be relevant because they’ve got a bit of a Peaky Blinders image including some serious facial hair (apart from Ebony).
On stage they erupt in to a six-song set with their upcoming single “Lacerate” and from the outset it’s blindingly obvious that this isn’t some shambolic indie outfit or Shoreditch hipsters. This band means business and they ain’t taking prisoners. Powerhouse drummer Sam stokes things up from the back and alongside bass player Jack builds a platform for Ebony’s monster over-driven riffs and Andy’s manic, demented prowling and half-shouted/half-sung vocals. It’s loud, aggressive and in-yer-face but make no mistake, they’re great players and the songs are all carefully crafted. When they crank out “Pummelling a Monk” and “Modern Pussy” to close the set, you know you’ve witnessed something a bit special. As for musical genre, who knows; it’s hard and heavy but the lyrics are fairly leftfield, maybe nu-metal indie? Anyway, they make a glorious noise and you can’t take your eyes off the stage. That spells great gig to me.

We’ll be down at the front again some time soon, meanwhile have a look at this:

I Hold Gravity scrollerThis one’s going to need a little historical perspective; I’ll try to keep it brief. Young guitar-slinger/singer starts to create a buzz in the early seventies, takes half a lifetime out to raise a family but never stops playing and writing, eventually comes out of self-enforced retirement to take up a writing and performing career with his wife, teams up with I See Hawks in L.A. to make an album. The context is important here, because musical influences and stylings that underpin the album from the late sixties/early seventies are married up with stories of rural America. There are little hints of Harry Nilsson, maybe Jim Croce as well in some of the arrangements, but the influences don’t stop at folk and country.

“Be Nemanic” opens up as a barrel-house blues which morphs into a Stax brass-driven stomper (á la Otis and Carla’s “Tramp”) telling the story of the granite-hewn immigrants who helped build the United States; it’s a rousing story of pride and a hint of a warning. There’s a similar raw edge to the opening song “Dirt” but with a raucous chain-gang feel, as the song explores the futility of mineral exploration. There’s a lot of humour in there too in the zydeco-tinged story of two knowing drug mules and the everyday day tale of country jealously, “Mr and Mrs Jones” with a rockabilly beat, some lovely Hammond and some very Steve Cropper-like guitar fills.

The title song, “I Hold Gravity”, is a love song, pure and simple, made achingly poignant by the fact that Gerry’s wife and songwriting partner Susan died as the album was nearing completion and the album’s closer “Into the Mystic” evokes a sense of deep loss before consolation is sought in communion with nature and the desert.

The ten songs on “I Hold Gravity” will pull you through a wide range of emotions. You’ll smile at “God Lubbock”, laugh out loud at “Mr and Mrs Jones”, yearn for the idyllic setting of “Here In the Pass” and cry at “I Hold Gravity” and then you’ll want to put yourself through that emotional wringer all over again; it’s that good.

“I Hold Gravity” is released on Friday June 23.

Sam Baker Land of Doubt ScrollerStraight up front, you need to know; this album won’t be for everyone. I have a strong suspicion that this is deep into Marmite territory, that it’s an acquired taste. Texan Sam Baker is one of those songwriters who is revered by his peers (Malcolm Holcombe’s another) who understand the journey he’s on and appreciate the craft involved in his work. One of his aims with “Land of Doubt” is to tell the stories or convey the feelings to his listeners in the most economic way possible without losing any of the nuances. Stripping back music usually involves leaving out instruments that add texture to arrangements, keys, horns, even electric guitar and bass. The approach Sam Baker has taken is to work out the minimum of sounds necessary to create the feeling he wants to evoke and to add nothing extraneous to it.

The economy isn’t just applied to the instrumentation. The melodies and the rhythms are kept sparse and simple and even the number of words is restricted, a bit like applying the haiku discipline to every aspect of making an album. Producer and drummer Neilson Hubbard, guitar player Will Kimbrough and cool jazz trumpeter Don Mitchell create perfect minimalist arrangements that allow the songs plenty of space; each of the elements is honed to perfection like a setting designed to emphasise a perfect gemstone, but not to overpower. There isn’t a hint of a standard format or template here. Each song gets exactly the instrumentation it needs; nothing more, nothing less. The percussion ranges from the almost non-existent on the country waltz “Love is Patient” to loud drums competing with the vocal on the swampy “Moses in the Reeds” and the military beat of “Some Kind of Blue”, telling the story of a Vietnam veteran who looks back to the war as the happiest time of his life.

At first glance, the track listing seems a little long, but ten songs are interspersed with five instrumental interludes that help to alleviate the sombre mood of the songs while additional colour and texture come in the form of Will Kimbrough’s ambient atmospherics, some piano and harmonium and some deft Chet Baker-style trumpet from Don Mitchell, particularly on “Say the Right Words”, the story of parents who disapprove of their daughter’s choice of partner but are too scared or smart (you decide) to tackle the matter head-on. One of Sam Baker’s strengths is in picking out these little tragedies from the background noise we’re surrounded and showing us the importance they have to the protagonists. It’s not always comfortable, but you can’t stop listening.

As I said at the top of this piece, it won’t be for everyone, but if you like the craft of the songwriter and the arranger, then you won’t be disappointed.

“Land of Doubt” is released on Friday June 16.

Carrie Elkin ScrollerEvery once in a while a gig comes along that restores your faith in London audiences; this was one of those gigs. The basement of The Slaughtered Lamb was packed to bursting with music fans and every single one of them wanted to listen and pay attention to two superb and engaging performers, Carrie Elkin and Danny Schmidt. Both were on stage throughout the two sets, but the opening set featured Danny Schmidt’s songs with Carrie supplying harmonies while the second set was mainly songs from Carrie’s outstanding new album, “The Penny Collector”. Throughout both sets, Carrie and Danny, singly and as a double act, kept the audience entertained with jokes, anecdotes and outright weirdness as a counterpoint to the beauty of the songs.

Danny’s opening set demonstrated the huge range of his writing and performance, from the barnstorming opener with about half a dozen false endings to the intensely personal song “We Need another Word” and the very wordy closer “Stained Glass”. As a songwriter, he can do the simple, moving songs but also has the more unusual ability to create songs that are packed with witty ideas without sounding self-consciously clever.

For the second set, the emphasis shifted to Carrie and the new album while Danny played guitar and added some gorgeous harmonies to a set of songs written at a pivotal and emotional point in their lives. The context of the album is made fairly clear by the narrative, but in the live setting Carrie and Danny added observations and anecdotes to flesh out the picture; some are poignant, some are just hilarious. Their set featured a couple of covers, Paul Simon’s “American Tune” (featured on the album) and Richard Thompson’s “Dimming of the Day” with the remainder of the set coming mainly from the new album, including “New Mexico”, “Always on the Run”, the hauntingly beautiful “And Then the Birds Came”, and “Live Wire” and “Tilt-a-Whirl” which explore different eras in the process of growing up. Carrie’s energy and good humour would pull you in to her orbit even if the songs were average (they’re not), and the fun between songs acts as a a counterpoint to the seriousness of the material.

Carrie Elkin and Danny Schmidt poured heart and soul into creating a performance that kept the audience transfixed and lifted the spirits of everyone in the room. They even dispelled the gloom of public transport in London late at night. Good work Green Note for promoting the show, and you can still see Carrie and Danny around the UK until Sunday June 11.

Gold Rush Scroller“Gold Rush” is Hannah Aldridge’s second album and it moves Hannah in a slightly different direction. Her debut “Razor Wire” (and an excellent debut too) was built around a set of country-inflected, mainly acoustic, guitar songs with the emphasis on personal experiences. That emphasis is still there on the second album but Hannah’s added a rockier edge which is evident in her switch from acoustic to electric guitar (Telecaster if you must know) and her description of her newer songs as Southern rock. “Razor Wire” was a huge favourite with the Riot Squad, so how does “Gold Rush” compare?

The title song, which closes the album, is a work of rare beauty; it’s more delicate than most of the new songs and deals with the idea of being at a point in time when looking forward and looking back are equally painful. When a writer can create the line ‘I don’t know if this is living or slow motion suicide’, you know you’re hearing a special talent. But “Gold Rush” isn’t about one song, there are nine more and they’re little firecrackers. The album’s first song “Aftermath” kicks open the doors with tribal drums and a tight rhythm section dragging “Jumping Jack Flash” into the twenty-first century. “Dark-Heated Woman” is sinister and menacing with a guitar solo that Neil Young would be proud of and “Living on Lonely” is plaintive, almost heart-breaking, with huge choral backing vocals. “Burning down Birmingham” is Southern rock with the trademark slide guitar hook and an insanely catchy chorus while “Shouldn’t Hurt So Bad” draws heavily on the Merseybeat/Byrds/Tom Petty jangly guitar stylings. And so it goes on, there are ten very good songs and a huge dynamic range.

Everything fits into place perfectly as Hannah moves effortlessly from the slower, more controlled, vocals to the raw and raunchy rockers. She ticks all the boxes; the songs are powerful, heart-rending, even harrowing at times, her voice is stunningly good and she has tremendous live presence. “Gold Rush” is an album created by someone who has seen and done too many things in a short life; it’s shot through with substance abuse references and some regrets, but no self-pity. The overall message is that this a testament from a survivor and we should all feel grateful for that. And one final great line for you, from “I Know Too Much”: ‘I don’t need another reason to hate myself, I don’t need another bad tattoo’.

This is a beautiful album that you will go back to again and again.

“Gold Rush” is released in the UK on Friday June 16 and you can find Hannah’s July UK tour dates here.

The Blue Train Scroller‘And why lump two gig reviews in different counties on different days together?’ I hear you ask.

  1. I am bone idle.
  2. These gigs are thematically linked. Bear with.

It has been a weekend of musical ‘barn finds’. This is where you stumble across a classic car hidden under a bale of straw in a barn somewhere and begin to unravel a story, finding in the process something which is rare and worth saving. And yes, this has happened to me a few times so I do know what I’m on about in that respect.

Hunter

Never, ever, give your band a name which ends in ‘er’. Look throughout musical history of the last century. It is simply the quickest way to buy a return ticket to whatever you wanted to escape from in the first place. 

Hunter is a bit of a local leg end in Leek. The band played the first Leek Festival 40 years ago when the world was new, back in 1977. They absolutely sizzled about 5000 folks in a local park before disappearing off as Leek’s one and only truly international rock band. Which is why they’ve returned for a hometown reunion gig – as a highlight of the Leek Arts Festival, 2017.

There’s is a strange story. A very competent pop / rock band of the kind that were just blown away by punk, they had a nice line in some decent tunes, a ‘novelty’ USP in that they had a fiddle player in formal dress (albeit with a less – than – formal – fiddle; this one has a Golden Virginia tin built into what might be described as ‘bespoke’ lines). They signed with one of the last pre – punk ‘pop impresarios’, Larry Page, and his Penny Farthing label which as I recall had the likes of Paul Da Vinci, Shocking Blue and Daniel Boone recording for it.

They struggled to make a breakthrough in the UK and always seemed about three months ‘off trend’ somehow; and were more than a little surprised to hear, in 1978, via a phone call from the label owner that a tune called “Rock On” that they’d knocked out as an amusing set closer and that none of the band members much cared for had gone to number 1 in Italy.

There followed hits and foraging parties to Australia and Japan; but time had caught up with them and the punk revolution did for any chance of being anything other than local heroes in the UK, despite an appearance on Tiswas.

But you can’t keep good musicians down; front man and prodigiously talented guitarist Les Hunt went on to join the Climax Blues Band and tonight, all of the original members bar the bass player have come together – and the current bass player has been playing with them for years – to play this reunion gig in front of a packed house.

I must admit to a enormous faux pas here; despite the consumption of nothing more than a very rock ‘n’ roll small bottle of Aldi water – much favoured by the gigeratti these days I think you’ll find – I somehow contrived to lose my notes including the set list; and so I’m restricted to overall impressions here, but really, I don’t think it matters all that much. The tunes are likeable enough, the sound authentic and engaging. Les Hunt plays a guitar which is warm and melodic when it needs to be and also a seriously blunt instrument when it needs to be; and it plays to best effect when weaving in and out of the extremely supple layers of sound from the keyboards. Indeed, as the set progressed it became more apparent that this is the key to how these lads seem to ‘bottle’ the spirit of the seventies; the keyboards could run the gamut from a funky “Superstition” – type vibe, a classic Steely Dan – style ‘smoking jazz’ rework, through the ‘old school’ Moog squeaks and blasts to a cheeky nod to ‘Close Encounters’ at the close of “Do You Believe in UFOs”. And the rhythm section was as solid as a rock and the two guest singers, who had also doubled up as the support act, really added some nice tonal touches to proceedings.

Re. UFOs; that title, though. You have to laugh. We don’t now, we did then. That’s because we know everything now. Which sort of spoils everything a bit. Destroys wonder.

And not because they played a string of covers by Mud, Sweet and Slade, because they stuck to their course of playing their own original body of work of their album tracks and singles released in different territories, I came away feeling more like I’d been immersed in the spirit of the seventies than if I’d been to a ‘revival’ show full of household names. And in for the kill they went at the end of the set with a lively blast through their Italian number 1 hit – the one they never really thought that much of. And to be honest, there isn’t much to it; a seventies mash – up of Sailor (Glass of Champagne, Girls Girls Girls etc circa 1975ish) and the Wombles, complete with that scraping, screeching but somehow compelling fiddle all welded to a sort of three minute schlock and roll pastiche (you may recall recalling the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll was a favourite musical pastime in the seventies). And the audience went bananas and danced in the aisles and all went home smiling. There are times when 40 years maybe doesn’t feel as long as it really is. Music can do that, when it so pleases. And as I made my way back home I couldn’t help but recall the lyrics of Kevin Johnson’s one – hit wonder ‘Rock n Roll (I Gave You All The Best Years Of My Life)….when he says of the music biz….

’You were changing your direction, never even knew…

..that I was always just one step behind you’.

And that, I think, is why the members of Hunter are very, very, very nearly men. And the fact that they are great musicians and they turn their trick with justifiable pride makes them a four-star listen.

The Blue Train

Saturday night and off to the leafy Nottingham suburb of Long Eaton to see The Blue Train go through their paces for the first time in donkey’s years.

There’s is another strange story.

It’s 1991. Having a hit in America is the Holy Grail for most musicians. As a territory – especially back in the days when people bought lorry loads of physical product – the numbers an American hit could generate were truly eye – watering. And once the juggernaut starts to roll…..it all makes the UK market look like a lightweight. Culturally important and yes, absolutely essential if you aspire to play Butlins one day, but tiny compared to The US of A.

Which would be fine if it was easy. Ask Robbie Williams. Ask the Specials. Etc etc. America has been the graveyard of dreams for generations of musicians. Many careers have collapsed while this particular ace was being chased.

But, quietly and inexplicably, The Blue Train did it.

They absolutely cracked it, first time out of the box.

Virtually no UK success to build on, no “Big In Japan” to open a few doors….signing to a small company which was a subsidiary of a bigger company, they released an album entitled ‘The Business Of Dreams’ from which the company, rather tentatively and with a modest budget in American terms, released a single entitled “All I Need Is You”.

Now, at that time in the UK, a song was released, entered the chart and if it was going to get anywhere it would be up there and doing fine, thanks, pretty much nationally with a few exceptions, within about 4 to 6 weeks, often less. 

In America, the sheer scale of the place means you have to stooge around as many of the states as your budget will allow, playing acoustic sets in radio studios, talking to journalists, appearing in record stores etc etc on a state-by-state basis. And as a consequence it is quite possible to have a hit on your hands in one state whilst being unable to get arrested in the next state. It’s a bit like trying to get elected as President but without the stupid haircut. The whole thing has to roll out across the country and build. Build a momentum.

And amazingly for this bunch of lads, that’s just what happened. Within a few months the single was at number 3 all the way across Los Angeles and was top 3 in Austin, Texas and Denver in Colorado, sharing the upper reaches of the charts with the likes of David Bowie and Tina Turner. And then it broke into the Billboard Top 30 nationally.

In just 3 weeks, this very English export had clocked up 83,000 plays on radio stations across the USA. That’s around a quarter of a million minutes of exposure to the biggest market for anything in the world at that time. The tune was then picked up by the producers of ‘Baywatch’ and as such still turns up at various far – flung locations around the globe in a thoroughly unlikely setting.

The record company was thereby presented with an open goal and for various reasons which need not detain us here, they ‘pulled’ the follow-up single when it was at number 15 on the US breaker’s chart and the whole thing fell to pieces.

Over a quarter of a century later and it is drummer Paul Betts’ birthday. The Blue Train decide to play a reunion gig at his party……and a few hundred people are to get the chance to see and hear what the fickle musical gods decided the UK would barely get to hear of or from.

The band open their set after a ground barrage of late 80s – early 90s American FM radio hits has been laid down by the DJ. They start with “Rain On The Way” and what immediately strikes compared to the slightly metallic and ‘automated’ sound on some of the album is the way in which there’s more reliance on a more ‘natural’ sound with singer Tony Osborne’s acoustic really ‘plumping up’ the overall ‘feel’ of the songs.

They really are an unusual sight to behold; both the above and lead picker Alan Fearn are southpaws and it feels at times as if you’re watching the gig ‘upside down’. Nothing ‘wrong way up’ about the sound, though; the lead weaves deftly in and out of the thick keyboard layers and the acoustic chops just serve to sweeten the mix. Birthday boy Paul Betts and newbie bass player James Hartley had clearly decided ‘they’re having it’ and don’t miss a thing all night. Indeed, one – off reunion gigs have something of a reputation for being messy, under – rehearsed affairs; no evidence whatsoever of that here.

Keyboard player Simon Husbands now lives in Minneapolis and has flown in especially for this gig and it doesn’t take much time to work out why. His contributions add drama and striking effects and contrast to the songs – like in “Hero Of The Hour” where the keyboard absolutely propels the song forward and his vocals are a great counter – point to the lead voice; and Tony Osborne’s voice is absolutely crystal and a fabulous vehicle for these songs.

Set highlights are a thunderous, anthemic “Hungry Years”, the aforementioned ‘Hero’ which gained some traction on the airwaves in the UK but nowhere near what it deserved, the spiky, Britpoppy “Fools” and an absolutely gorgeous version of “The Hardest Thing”, recently heard by millions of people worldwide propping up some video of Piers Brosnan on YouTube (and of course at the moment of absolutely no financial advantage to the band themselves). 

The band take a break after a spirited dash through “Reason” and return for a well-earned encore to play the hugely infectious “Wild Heart” and then, yes, it’s That Tune…..the huge American FM smash of “All I Need Is You”. And the crowd are up and they’re dancing and suddenly, and for just a few minutes, The One That Got Away has finally come home.

Conclusions to draw?

Here are two bands who, in their own times, enjoyed huge success in two different markets, but the problems they now face are remarkably similar. If you base yourself in Blighty, you really need to convert the success abroad into a homespun hit or two; but for their various different reasons, for these bands it just wasn’t to be.

But something else was and fair play to them for what they’ve achieved.

Both bands still play their own, original music and whilst various musicians in both bands make a living out of playing music which isn’t original to them, it is quite clear they both realise and understand the privilege and responsibilities of being able to play their own body of work.

Hunter will no doubt go on as a live entity, playing one-off showcase gigs in the Potteries for as long as they’re able and for as long as they enjoy it. And they’ve managed to ‘freeze’ that sense of the time which produced this music and they seem to take it with them.

The Blue Train, on the other hand, seem to have evolved their sound into something which to these ears sounds contemporary and in a way almost timeless, and because of this it would be a shame and something of a loss if this proved to be ‘just’ a one – off gig to celebrate a band member’s birthday.

Musicians can be extremely frustrating people. But, in turn, it must be extremely frustrating being a musician at times.

Especially when the ‘it’ you made when you ‘made it’ is an ‘it’ which doesn’t show up in the Guinness Book of Hit Singles and doesn’t turn you into the answer to a pop quiz question, alongside Chicory Tip. But compared to the journey both of these bands embarked upon, and are still on….does it really matter that much?The Blue Train Scroller

Pierce Edens - 'Stripped Down Gussied Up' - cover (300dpi)There’s an expression that always rings alarm bells when I read it in connection with musicians: genre-bending. And have you ever heard anyone actually use the expression in conversation? Anyway it manages to insinuate itself in to the press release for the Pierce Edens album “Stripped Down Gussied Up”, which is as contradictory as the title suggests; the arrangements have been stripped back to basics then topped off with a selection of ambient noises and studio trickery. It’s a bit like taking all the bodywork off your car, down to the chassis, then sticking a spoiler on the back end. Pierce has a voice that you might say is original and has character; it’s certainly idiosyncratic and I found it difficult to take over a whole album; you find yourself wanting to give him a bagful of consonants. To give you an idea of what I mean, he manages to out-Waits Tom Waits on his cover of “Mr Siegal”.

There were positives as well; “The Bonfire”, checking in at over six minutes, is powered by relentless, strummed acoustic guitar as the story of a doomed relationship unfolds with a lyrical hint at the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood”. “I Can’t Sleep” runs on the same fuel with the addition of Kevin Reese’s over-driven electric guitar and a quickfire, almost breathless, vocal delivery from Pierce. If you like a bit of aural experimentation and a twisted vocal delivering dark tales of smalltown North Carolina, then this might be just the thing for you.

“Stripped Down Gussied Up” is released on Friday June 2.